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Interview with Tom Mereckis, Group Product Manager: Microsoft Visio 2002

ActiveWin.com: What was the development time of Microsoft Visio 2002?

Tom Mereckis: We took 15 months total to design, develop, and test Visio 2002. We did this work against a backdrop of being acquired by Microsoft Corporation, though on balance, this was more of a bonus to the Visio Development team than a hindrance. Basically, we started the project right around the time we were acquired, and our new colleagues at Microsoft quickly got the team up to speed on all the new tools, processes, and other resources we could use to help make the project go more smoothly. Because access to these Microsoft resources made our development effort smoother than we'd ever experienced before, we achieved our first estimated ship date and actually had a little time left over for some extra work and testing. We also think the quality of the Visio 2002 product represents by far the highest benchmark in the 11-year history of the Visio product. That quality leap is tangible proof that the Microsoft acquisition of Visio is a good thing for our customers.

ActiveWin.com: How many people were on the development team?

Tom Mereckis: We had an extended team of around 250 people working on the effort, including development, program management, test, user assistance, localization, product management, and others. We're especially proud that almost all of these people came over to Microsoft from the Visio Corporation acquisition - including one of Visio's co-founders, Ted Johnson. Ted is still actively involved in Visio as VP of Microsoft's Business Tools Division, which includes the Visio, Project, and MapPoint teams.

ActiveWin.com: What new and improved features does Visio 2002 have over the previous?

Tom Mereckis: There's a lot to talk about here. This is the first Microsoft-developed Visio product. Visio 2000 was really a Visio Corporation effort with few tweaks after the acquisition. So during the Visio 2002 effort, we rolled in a lot of improvements in terms of integrating with Office, SQL Server, Windows Active Directory, Visual Studio, VBA 6.3, Project, and more.

 Visio had always been well-integrated with a host of Microsoft technologies, but this time around we made it a real focus in order to raise the quality and capability bar up to the level of the rest of the Microsoft Office Family of applications, because the reality is that customers expect more from Microsoft, and our products are often under a microscope as a result. We also added new shapes, improved many of our specific diagramming solutions, and improved our Web publishing capabilities dramatically. At the core of the Visio 2002 product, we fully implemented Microsoft Installer, so Visio can be deployed and managed just like Office now. This may seem like an unglamorous improvement, but so far it's been a huge hit with larger corporations. Everyone using Visio 2002 will notice the leap in visual quality derived from implementation of GDI+, a new anti-aliasing graphical rendering technology shared by Visio 2002 and Office XP. Finally, we added an alternative XML file format for our customers and partners who want to develop a custom Visio-based solution using XML.

ActiveWin.com: Why were the previous four versions combined into two?

Tom Mereckis: We heard a chorus of cries from customers, partners, and our own colleagues at Microsoft saying "Your offerings are too complicated! Which Visio do I need?" Our four Visio 2000 offerings were hard to make sense of, so we consolidated Visio 2000 Professional and Visio 2000 Technical into Visio 2002 Professional. We took the advanced IT diagramming tools in Visio 2000 Enterprise and created an add-on to Visio 2002 Professional called Visio Enterprise Network Tools. We took the software and database modeling tools in Visio 2000 Enterprise and put them into the forthcoming Visual Studio.NET Enterprise Architect Edition. We felt that since most of the developers interested in modeling their applications have Visual Studio, then that's where those tools should reside.

ActiveWin.com: Were there any features removed during this process?

Tom Mereckis: No, we kept all of it, added more, and improved much of the rest.

ActiveWin.com: Some of our viewers may be interesting in helping out in testing the next version of Visio. Is your team accepting or planning to accept applications to join the beta program for the next product?

Tom Mereckis: We are not accepting applications at this time, since we are still too early in our development cycle for the next release. But we'll let you know when that time comes!

ActiveWin.com: How do the Enterprise Network Tools add to Visio 2002 Professional?

Tom Mereckis: Microsoft Visio® Professional 2002 is intended to provide comprehensive technical and business diagramming tools for IT professionals, engineers, and developers so they can interpret and share technical information with ease. Visio Enterprise Network Tools (VENT), an add-on to Visio 2002 Professional, is a specialized network diagramming tool for network managers. VENT is intended to take the sting out of documenting network systems by having Visio automatically diagram the network infrastructure, with port-level accuracy. VENT comes with a complimentary subscription to the Visio Network Center, where IT managers have access to a wealth of resources, such as white papers, and additional network equipment shapes that will help them document and manage their networks.

ActiveWin.com: If Visio 2002 was still in development today, what would you do differently or change now that you've seen the product released?

Tom Mereckis: Besides adding lots of new specific features (a never-ending wish list!), we'd probably have liked to work more on both the product's performance and extensibility. More than that though, we wished the world of .NET had been further along so that we could add some of those services to Visio.

ActiveWin.com: What online resources are there for users of Visio 2002?

Tom Mereckis: In addition to the wealth of information on the (http://www.microsoft.com/office/visio)  Official site and the TechNet and MSDN sites (http://www.microsoft.com/TechNet) and (http://msdn.microsoft.com/default.asp), there is also a pretty good 3rd party resource page: http://www.magma.ca/~lancucki/Visio_Support.htm

ActiveWin.com: What is your key selling point to businesses and developers?

Tom Mereckis: Our key selling point is that Visio accomplishes a very wide array of tasks for a variety of people, from business users creating org charts and flowcharts, to technical users designing, deploying, and maintaining systems with the help of Visio, to custom solutions that become strategic and critical to an organization. The amazing thing is that it is very easy to deploy, very easy to use, and we do it all on one platform, which means you have one Microsoft Office Family product to deploy and maintain, and you have one basic usage paradigm for all these people in an organization to learn. The only other option is deploying 10 or 20 specific-use tools across your desktops, which is an option most IT and business decision makers do not like.

We recently did a study with the help of the META Group which showed that using Visio does indeed translate into real value. Among other measures, Visio users were more than 40% more effective when using Visio versus all other alternative means to complete that task, and even saved themselves over 50% time for that task.

ActiveWin.com: What do you respond to those numerous users that criticize the MSPA (product activation) feature?

Tom Mereckis: I think MSPA has been misunderstood by many people. Microsoft designed Product Activation as a way to verify software licenses and thwart the spread of software piracy. People who use illegal software not only hurt themselves, they also contribute to a problem that cumulatively can hurt job creation in the software industry and related businesses. The 2000 BSA Software Piracy Report estimates worldwide losses due to software piracy at almost $12 billion for the year 2000. Software piracy also has a significant impact on the high-tech industry, resulting in lost jobs, decreased innovation and higher costs to consumers.

I know users are concerned about how much personal information they need to give. But the only information that gets sent to Microsoft when you activate your software is your Product ID number and the information you enter (and the only thing you're required to enter is your country of origin). I don't think people realize that.

ActiveWin.com: Did the development team work frequently with different departments at Microsoft in designing/developing this product? How so?

Tom Mereckis: We worked actively with a wide variety of groups at Microsoft, all of which was a learning experience since the vast majority of the folks working on Visio 2002 were from Visio Corporation, and were therefore new to the Microsoft way of doing things. We worked with other development teams and development support teams to get access to tools, processes, and other resources that really helped us make Visio 2002 our best-ever release. The testing of this product was just amazing. The resources Microsoft has to test its products far surpass those we had available to us as Visio Corporation.

ActiveWin.com: During the development of this product was there any hilarious or outlandish moments that stick out in your mind?

Tom Mereckis: Well, the day we shipped off the final code stands out in my mind:

We decided to go all out for the Visio 2002 RTM and rent a stretch limousine to take the gold CDs over to Redmond. A representative from each team that worked on Visio 2002 was designated to ride in the limousine, along with the gold CD courier. Everyone was invited to go down to the front of the building to see the CDs off in the limo. As they prepared to leave, our courier and master schedule manager Tim Davenport hatched a plan to trick people into thinking that he had clumsily smashed the gold CDs to bits. He carried a set of authentically-labeled but empty CD jewel cases in one hand, with the real gold CDs in his briefcase. As everyone walked to the limo in front of an audience of cheering Visioites, he let everyone believe that he had the gold CDs in his hand. Before he got in the limo, he was asked to pose for a photo in front of it with the CDs in his hand. After the picture was taken, he said something like "Okay everyone, say goodbye to the CDs!" As everyone chorused "goodbye," he tossed the jewel cases high into the air so that they would come crashing down on the sidewalk in a dramatic smash, shards of plastic flying into the crowd like shrapnel. He then turned quickly around and hopped into the limo and off they went to Redmond, leaving the duped crowd on the sidewalk.

ActiveWin.com: What do you like most about this product?

Tom Mereckis: My personal favorite is the new look - a Visio 2002 diagram just looks great now. I've heard the same feedback from customers, press, analysts, and many others as well, which surprised me, since there are a lot of other great new things in the product as well.




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